“Side Effects” (Deconstruction #2) – Putting Concept to Work In the Narrative… Even Before You Write it.

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by Larry Brooks on March 1, 2013

This is the second in a multi-part series dissecting, discussing and mining gold from “Side Effects,” the current film by Stephen Soderbergh, written by Scott Z. Burns.  Click HERE to read Part 1, then hurry back to stay with us… we’re going hard and fast.

Click HERE to see the TRAILER for the film… you’ll be amazed at how much you see now that the curtain has parted.

*****

PROLOGUE: A Refining of the notion of “Concept”

Allow me this quick educational aside before diving back into “Side Effects.”

This emerging discussion about Concept, the debate, this confusion, this lack of clarity… can go away quickly, and without much argument, when we tweak the definition of “CONCEPT” in the context of applying it as a writing TOOL.  If it is given a sharper focus.

So here goes.

When you think about Concept as one of the Six Core Competencies, as an essential and valuable aspect of storytelling… and especially if you’re tempted to do so through the lens of theme, because by golly that’s how you think…  consider it this way:

Every story BENEFITS FROM a compelling DRAMATIC  CONCEPT.

That changes the game for some, nails it for others.  DRAMATIC CONCEPT.  A SOURCE of dramatic tension.  The seed of conflict (here’s a non-negotiable: no conflict, no story, end of debate).  A STAGE upon which theme is allowed to present itself through the thematic consequences of the choices of your characters… within the DRAMATIC CONCEPT.

And yes, this means PLOT.  A twist, a conceptual idea… that implies DRAMA.

Hope this helps.

A quick correction: the original version of this post, the one distributed to subscribers, had a serious error: the offending drug from the movie was called ABLIXA.  I’d referred to it in this post, quite erroneously, as “Abilify,” which is an actual depression drug (my guess is the alliterative similarities is intentional on the part of the filmmakers, but I’m only speculating).  To my knowledge no evidence of harmful side effects, or anything close to those depicted in the film, which is fiction, have been attributable to Abilify.  My apologies.  Larry

*****

“Side Effects” — From Concept to Specific Story Structure

In the over 200 stories I’ve analyzed in the last eight months, I’d say 75% had problems at the conceptual level.  At the DRAMATIC TENSION level.  The Questionnaire I use in my story coaching asks for both a statement of Concept and the source of dramatic tension.  When those answers don’t align, there’s a problem, and thus, an opportunity to improve the project.

More succinctly, those writers didn’t grasp and adhere to a CORE STORY that IS the source of dramatic tension.  Instead they go on to write about a theme or a setting, with either too little or a shifting dramatic focus.  The result is a failure to mine the inherent gold of story physics, which is available to all.

Concept is the clarification and evolution of the core story.   Not the core theme, not the priority or passion of the writer… but the CORE DRAMATIC STORY being told, which becomes the vehicle for theme.  It is essential.  Non-negotiable.

When weak, it drags down every other noble intention the author brings to the process.  The lack of dramatic concept is almost always a deal-killer.

Take note of the word “dramatic.”  It means… not just any old vanilla concept that is a placeholder to check off this criteria.  Rather, something fresh and layered and, most of all, compelling.

Dramatic Concept actually leads to and defines the story’s structure. 

Examine the first Act/Part in “Side Effects”  and you’ll see this at work.  It would have been virtually impossible to write this story without completely grasping what it was really about in a dramatic sense.

Just as this film completely fools viewers for up to half its running length, a story rendered without a clear understanding of Dramatic Concept can fool its own writer in a similar fashion.  You begin writing about one thing, you realize it wants to be something else, and so you turn that corner… or not.  Leaving the uninformed first pages completely without context.

Context is king when it comes to writing great stories.  “Side Effects” showcases this with clarity and power.  Watch and learn.  Every scene is dripping with context (an unspoken, even unacknowledged defining truth), otherwise known as sub-text.

Thing is, Concept isn’t only valuable as something that empowers the outcome, the end-game itself.  It is also one of the most valuable story development and writing tools – much like a photograph or an artists rendering empowers an architect’s blueprint – in that it can quickly lead you to four things… all four necessary before a draft will work:

Because Concept defines the CORE STORY…

-         it can help you nail the First Plot Point.

-         it can define what must be put into play in Part 1.

-         it can help you determine how the story will resolve.

-         it can help you find a killer opening hook.

A killer concept can actually do a lot more than this, even before the writing itself has commenced (or if you’re a pantser, as you come across opportunities in the draft process, which for you IS the “search for story”), because your Concept defines the CONTEXT of the story.

And a story without context is a story that doesn’t work.

Here’s the ignition switch to make this happen:

Let’s assume you have a solidly compelling and rich DRAMATIC CONCEPT in mind.  Because of it you know what the core story IS… and that becomes the primary source of CONFLICT AND TENSION in the narrative.

You can’t really define ANY of those four things listed above (and more) UNTIL you understand the core story.  They all connect to and depend on each other, subordinated to a Bigger Picture context… defined by your dramatic concept.

Which sends us back to basics, and to “Side Effects”: the core story ISN’T your theme (the dangers of drugs), your character arc, your setting or your sub-text/sub-plot.

It IS the core story (the murder conspiracy/scam), the primary source of DRAMATIC TENSION.

In “Side Effects” the drugs DO provide some dramatic tension.  But be clear, that’s a supporting role here, part of the SETUP and motivation that underpins the CORE story… which is the murder conspiracy and its stock market scheme.

Right there is why you need to know your DRAMATIC CONCEPT… at is very CORE.  At the highest priority and focus.  Otherwise, you may end up focusing on the wrong aspect of your story, to the detriment of… well, all of it.

Let’s use the movie as a laboratory here. 

Better yet, let’s climb into the screenwriter’s head, pre-draft, and see how his understanding of the conceptual core story led him to the FPP, the Part 1 scenes, the ending, the opening hook, and some other story points.

Everything in the story, every scene on the screen, was developing IN CONTEXT TO THE DRAMATIC CONCEPT.

Burns isn’t fooling himself (he’s only fooling us, for about a half hour) that this is a story about the side effects of depression drugs.  He realizes that this temporary focus is thematic, that it is sub-text, that it is there – first and foremost – as a dramatic device.

Nothing wrong with making the most of it, thematically, while it’s there.  That’s actually part of the power – as well as the narrative strategy – of this story.  And it doesn’t matter if that theme was the starting point of the story itself.  Regardless of where you start, where your heart is, the professional understands that the story needs to work, and for that to happen, the context of dramatic tension trumps all.

Burns knows his core story is this:

A woman fakes her reaction to a new depression drug, using published evidence of its side effects (sleep walking and delusion) to her advantage to create an illusion.  She manipulates a doctor into prescribing it for her, faking symptoms all the while.  She’s coached on all this by a silent partner, herself a doctor (and her lover), with a view toward killing her husband, getting off on a temporary insanity plea after a short rehab, then profiting from the resulting stock market hullabaloo relative to the drug manufacturer.

THAT is the core story here.  It’s there in the CONCEPT.  It’s what this story is ABOUT.  Everything else is there is make this happen.

One other piece of basic knowledge applies here: structurally, the core story is LAUNCHED AT the First Plot Point, after being SETUP in the scenes prior to that point.

Scott Z. Burns knows this.  YOU should know this.  Pretty much any story that works – even after a dozen drafts – exhibits this.

That’s not a formula, contrary to what some naive cynics and brainwashed MFAs insist.  It’s dramatic optimization.  It’s what makes the story the best it can possibly be.

Mess with this principle at your own, and your story’s, peril.  Insert your FPP too soon and the expositional, story physics-driving benefits of a thorough setup wane.  Insert it too late and both pace and dramatic tension suffer for it (this is why you put some books down after 100 pages… nothing is happening).

So there you are, you’re Scott Z. Burns, you’re sitting on this killer concept… you understand these concepts… what do you do next?

You nail down your First Plot Point, that’s what.

You have to get Emily’s murder conspiracy in play.  You need to define that point at which SETUP transitions into IMPLEMENTATION.  A key moment, a switch being thrown, an irreversible milestone being reached, the gas being hit, the fuse being lit.

Burns had three acts to structure (four, for novelists, but it’s really the same thing), and the FPP is a necessary step before that can happen, because it’s what separates Part/Act I from Part/Act II.  You write or plan scenes FROM that point, backwards and forwards, rather than allowing it to surface organically.

When you do allow it to surface organically, revisions ensue.

You already know we need to see, in Act/Part 1, the wife displaying all manner of depression and need for therapy and medication.  It’s part of her scam, and part of YOUR setup.  That’s the mission of your Part 1 scenes.  By the time the FPP arrives, you need to have Emily on something (a drug) that our patsy/protagonist/hero has unwittingly prescribed.

Just knowing that practically defines what your FPP should be.  Ahead of time.  It needs to be the scene in which the doctor agrees to prescribe the Big Bad drug to her… it’s when he (and the viewer) falls smack into her trap (something we, the viewers, won’t realize until Part 3… but YOU, the writer, need to know NOW).

It’s when Emily (the wife) brings Ablixa into her life, the target drug for the stock market scam.  It happens when, as a direct result of her displaying her perceived symptoms and manipulating everyone to believing she’s seriously depressed, she ASKS her doctor to prescribe Ablixa for her.  She even concocts a story about a co-worker who says it’s great.

It is right HERE that the core story actually LAUNCHES – there’s no core story drama until this happens, even with Emily faking a bunch of symptoms… those mean nothing UNTIL the drug gets into play – after being brilliantly setup in the Part 1 scenes before it.

And so Jude Law does just that.  He switches her prescription from Zoloft to Ablixa (under the brand name of Deletrex, which is a bit confusing, but its how the industry works – Ambien, for example, is actually a drug called Zolpidem), which (as an element of Part 1) has been established as the target drug for the scam.

Exactly as Emily and her lover planned.  But of course, the viewer doesn’t get that until much later.

And thus, the First Plot Point manifests.   At the 25-minute mark.  Which is the 24 percent mark of the film’s total 106 minute running time… well within the 20 to 25th percentile optimal target.

You Always Have Choices

Why not sooner?  Until you realize all the things Burns had to get into the setup, it may be hard to see why it wasn’t earlier.  But when you do consider all the necessary facets of the setup, you can see why it required all that time, about 23 (out of a total of 94) scenes worth of exposition.

Why not later?  Why isn’t the murder itself the FPP?  Because the core story needs to launch – even in retrospect, which is the case here – early enough to get the dramatic tension into play, versus the setup context of Part 1.   This was an author’s choice… either could have worked, but Burn’s went for the mind game first and foremost.

At a glance, without a stopwatch in your lap, you might argue (and almost certainly believed, at least at first), that the murder itself was the FPP.  Because it certainly does spin the story in a new direction.

But it wasn’t.  It was too late for the FPP.  It’s actually the First Pinch Point, occurring at the 35 minute mark (at 33 percent in, a bit early, but totally in keeping with the mission of a Pinch Point: to bring the dark threat of the antagonist – the wife and her scam—front and center to the story… Channing Tatum dead on the floor certainly does that).

None of this happens unless Burns knows exactly what his core story is.  What his DRAMATIC CONCEPT is.  The murder is a consequence.  The core story began as soon as Jude Law gave her Ablixa to provide her scam with an engine.

Part 1, Emerging from the Forthcoming FPP

With Emily beginning to take Ablixa as the catalytic First Plot Point, thus launching her scam after placing all the “setup” activities required for it to work, the Part 1 scenes themselves, which precede the FPP, begin to show themselves.  The writer now understands what information, specifically, Part 1 (the SETUP) needs to put in motion.

Emily needs to show her depression to the world.  Her need for a doctor.  For depression drugs.  Her suicide attempt.  Her imaginary friend.  Her relationship to her husband and his work friends.  Her inability to cope while on Zoloft, her initial depression and how it escalates, thus establishing the need for something stronger.

The offending (fictional) drug itself, Ablixa, needs to be introduced and set up.  Its side effects – especially sleep walking and delusion – need to have been established.

The audience needs to empathize WITH her, so the mind-boggling story shift will be more effective.  That, too, is part of the concept here.  It’s the narrative strategy (one of the six realms of Story Physics), to INVOLVE the audience in the story experience.

The co-conspirator (Dr. Victoria Seibert, the Catherine Zita-Jones doctor character) needs to be positioned in the story – she’s the one who first introduces Jude Law to Ablixa), but not revealed as a villain.

You never see it coming… but after you know and go back to see it again, you’ll marvel at how and why you missed it.  Everything in Part 1 is converging toward the First Plot Point, as well as unfolding in context to the Big Picture of Emily’s true intentions.

All of this becomes the stuff of Part 1.  Stemming directly from the Dramatic Concept, and defining itself in context to the First Plot Point, which denotes the point at which it all must be in play.

Watch the TRAILER again… you’ll see an entire roster of Part 1 scenes here… which it telling, but the mission of a trailer, like Part 1, is to HOOK you and set up you for… well, buying in.

Part 2, Springing Forth from the FPP

I hope you begin to sense the power of knowing what the contextual mission of each of the four story parts IS… and how the specific content of your FPP, in context to the overall Dramatic Concept now points you straight at what must happen in Part 2… where the hero (Jude Law) must RESPOND to it.

At some point, Burns realizes, he has to have Emily kill Martin (Tatum), her husband.  That’s a key turning point… not of the story itself, but of her scam (which, it bears repeating here IS the core story).  What better spot, then, to show it than at the First Pinch Point, thus allowing Emily to further deepen the perception of side effects for the first half of Part 1 (boy-howdy does it ever), and then have everybody in the ballpark continue to RESPOND to them for the remainder of Part 3.

At some point, though, the story needs to turn a corner. 

Eventually it needs to surface that all is not what it seems.  New information needs to come forth that pokes holes and casts doubt on Emily’s story, and leads to the revelation of her true motivations.

Which of course is the mission of the Mid-Point.  It occurs at the 53 minute mark (exactly the 50-percent target), when Emily strikes a deal with the DA, and basically, because of an insanity plea stemming from the side effects of the drug, gets away with murder.  All according to her dark plan.

That plan was in motion from the beginning, and it is working perfectly at this point.  Because not only will she soon be free, our hero doctor (Jude Law) is going to end up taking the fall, as the incompetent, self-interested party that prescribed the drug, the cause of it all, to her.And thus, the story has a whole new context.  Jude Law is now fighting for his professional and (as we’ll soon learn) personal life.  And soon, for justice.

Notice here how the viewer is still in the dark about the truth.  But now we’re rooting for Jude Law, because we sense something amiss in Emily’s story.  We’ve been brilliantly led to this point by the writer and director, through a series of dynamics and even tiny visual clues, all of which continue to have us completely involved on an emotional level.  Even though we’re now rooting for something else entirely.

And all of which, by way, are shown to us (the viewers) in Part 4.  Why?  To help tie it all together, and moreover, to deliver a sense of emotional satisfaction.

The Opening Hook Also Emerges from Concept

This story was problematic from the get-go, in that the viewer needed to be hooked into something highly dramatic, but without either revealing or cheating the truth.  How do you show a forthcoming murder, or something that drastic, without showing us too much?

Burns and Soderbergh did so, in essence, with a short Prologue.  A preview of a moment down the story road, without context, yet promising drama (in the form of blood).

In the opening scene of the film, we see a toy model sailboat (a gift to Martin from Emily, as we’ll later learn in a Part 2 scene, just before the murder is revealed) as the camera pans through their apartment, revealing blood stains and bloody footprints.

That’s all we get.  In the context of the Part 1 scenes that follow, we expect the blood to be the result of Emily’s side effects.  We don’t know who dies, if anyone… but that dramatic QUESTION is on the table.  If we were ever in doubt that this building of her drug story was going to end badly, we had only to recall how the story opens.

That’s the HOOK.  The posing of a dramatic question, the answer to which we sense will be compelling.  The promise of high drama.  Of stakes and consequences.  Of more going on than we will initially be allowed to see.

And totally impossible to render, from the writer’s point of view, without a complete understanding of the core story, as well as where and how that story reveals itself.  In this case, in stages, each building upon what came before.

And then, of course, there’s the ending.

You’ve seen the film, you know how it ends.  Badly, as it turns out, for Emily.  Which we’re rooting for (against her), and satisfied with.  And very nicely, from Jude Law’s POV.  Which we’re also rooting for, and in a big way.

It’s obvious how this ending connects to the story’s core dramatic concept.   How it is created BY it.  Because an ending is the RESOLUTION of the core story, and the core story is DEFINED by the dramatic concept.

If you thought the story, at its core, was about drugs… notice that you don’t get resolution about that.  That’s just theme… powerful from the first frame.  That’s the only DRAMATIC role in this story for the focus on depression drugs and their side effects.

Which is not to say the writers don’t take the opportunity to poke us with that theme, to whack us upside the head with it, to make us think and ask questions, to inspire a higher awareness.  In dramatic fiction that’s almost always the mission of theme within the story…

… something the enlightened writer understands.  It’s why theme is among the Six Core Competencies of successful storytelling.

And thus the dance between theme and conceptually-driven dramatic tension begins.  Make no mistake, no matter who asked who for that dance, it is dramatic tension, as framed by the concept, that leads.

*****

Click HERE if you’d like your story plan analyzed – especially your Dramatic Concept and its relationship to the major story milestones – to this degree.

 

 

{ 21 comments }

Sara Davies March 1, 2013 at 6:30 pm

Would it be accurate to say that concept defines all features of the story as a whole, and everything that happens in the telling must be in relation to that core idea? Nothing extraneous, no accidents, no coincidences.

Do we need to be able to highlight or explain the source of dramatic tension (conflicts, challenges faced by the hero) in the concept summary?

Dave H March 2, 2013 at 8:44 am

This analysis is clarifying for me the power in working the story ‘engineering and physics’ before digging into the detailed implementation. I could imagine an initial concept like “What someone were to fake drug side effects in order to get away with murder (and make money in the medical stock repercussions)? That’s ‘a little bit interesting’ – but it would be a shame to start ‘writing that story.’ The ways that Burns teased out the other layers of motivation and conflict, with the psychiatrist love affair, struggles put in front of Jude Law’s character, etc. would have been hard to back-fit if one had gotten too far along with the weaker starting point.
I also loved the way lesser details like the ‘near suicide’ in the subway was portrayed. On its face, we empathize with Emily and see it as sort of pathetic that she is drawing the attention of the cop. Later, of course, we see that she orchestrates that interest from him and notes his name – going as far as to send a thank-you note to further document her ‘suicide attempt.’ I’d guess you might come up with that if you had back-fit some of the better dynamics that revisions could have uncovered – but I can see how much better it would be to have need for such things in hand from the start of the detailed writing.

Larry Brooks March 2, 2013 at 8:50 am

@Dave — thanks for sharing this, and for ‘getting it.’ You’re right, one of the best lessons here is to understand how, when complex layering is involved (which usually results in a very compelling story, especially in thrillers), planning really helps. I’ve learned not to deal in absolutes on that issue, so I should say that organic back-fitting can work, too (which is simply another draft, because as you see in this film, any “backfitting” woud need to begin almost at the opening scene), and some writers (claim) they simply cannot plan ahead. The value here, as you cite, is the upside of writing with these expository layers, and with a contextual agenda in play early… which means the writers uses THAT as a beacon the whole way through. Thanks for contributing, Dave. L.

Larry Brooks March 2, 2013 at 8:52 am

@Sara — I think you’re right, especially when you say “nothing extraneous, no coincidences, no accidents.” But that’s not really a function of structure as much as it is a story-saving overriding principle. Dramatic structure (I hope you notice my intro/tweak of that defintion at the beginning of this post) keeps us focused on core linear narrative, so in that sense what you say is spot-on. Two very good points there, thanks for culling them out. L.

Sharon C. March 2, 2013 at 11:16 am

Naive as I may sound, I learned (from this post) that the First Plot Point does not have to be overly dramatic, rather it’s the starting point for the real story to begin. After I saw the movie, I first assumed the FPP was when she drove into the wall – because it seemed to be the first real dramatic moment, the first real moment when I gasped.

Then after analyzing the moments in more detail, I decided the FPP was when Jude Law (as the psychiatrist) entered her hospital room after she drove into the wall – because that’s when the real hero was introduced. To me it seemed that’s when the story began.

I understand now why you (Larry) say the core story begins the moment he prescribes Ablixa … yet as I write this I still find I’m curious, why that moment and not the moment he enters the story. Could you explain this a bit more?

Also, toward the end of the post you (Larry) say “It’s obvious how this ending connects to the story’s core dramatic concept. How it’s created by it….” I’ve only seen the film once, and I was caught up in the way Jude Law manipulated Emily in thinking he was on her side, when in fact he was setting her up, just as she set him up. I liked the ending. From my limited perspective, I see how it ties to the concept. But I want to hear it from where you sit. So please, if you would, explain how you see the ending as obviously connecting to the Concept. Thank you.

Sharon C. March 2, 2013 at 11:18 am

Oh, and you’re welcome (relating to our posts after the Concept deconstruction). It’s always flattering to think that my musings made the instructor re-think something.

Tony McFadden March 2, 2013 at 5:35 pm

From “concept” comes “conception”. It’s the literal seed of the story.

I’ve spent months working a story to the point where I know what’s going to happen from go to whoa. Months of getting all of the details settled so when I do write, I know exactly what needs to happen where. And why.

My latest book started with a title (a rarity for me – that’s usually the hardest part) blurted by my son. The question of what comes first, concept or theme or … is kind of moot. It’s not a linear process. They evolve and are entangled and when you finally get to a point where you are ready to write, it doesn’t really matter.

The planning for my next one (and I have absolutely NO idea what its title will be) revolves around a combination of theme (save the planet) and concept (briefly, alien overseers keeping an eye on us since the dawn of the industrial revolution, lest we encroach on *their* territory). It’s to and fro all the way through. And I doubt I’ll have it fully locked in before May.

But that’s the fun of it.

I’m enjoying this deconstruction, Larry, because it’s going deeper than previous ones you’ve done. I learn more every time I come to your site.

Thanks.

Tony McFadden March 2, 2013 at 5:45 pm

@Sara, re: first plot point. I’ve always seen (“always” since I discovered this site) the FPP as the action or event that pushes the protagonist/hero off the rails. If Jude Law’s character hadn’t written the prescription, he wouldn’t have ended up in the situation he did.

In Breaking Bad’s pilot, if Walter White wasn’t diagnosed with cancer (12 minute into the 48 minute episode) he wouldn’t end up a meth kingpin.

In the kid’s favourite, “Incredible Journey”, if the old dog hadn’t made the decision to find his owners, they would have stayed put on the ranch and the “Incredible Journey” would have been not so incredible.

In any story, the FPP needs to be the point the hero’s journey is pushed off the status quo, however subtly, and the conflict for the rest of the journey is the hero trying to get back their status quo.

At least that’s my take.

spinx March 3, 2013 at 4:33 am

First off – I did not read the whole post! I need to be going somewhere in a minute but since I forgot to mention this the last time I was here, I thought I should just get it out right now, before I forget it again.

So, sorry if you already covered this somewhere above (but according to your statistics, it seems others have just as hard a time putting one and one together!).

PLOT vs. CONCEPT.

That is what is still confusing me I guess; I mean, I KNOW.
Up until yesterday, where I stumbled upon your other post (what concept is) I mistook concept for PLOT. If concept is that short summary of what happens, then what is PLOT?

That is confusing to me. But at the same time, I know – NOW – very clearly when I do nt have a story. Which pretty much goes like this–> when my sister asks me, what my story is about, and I can only come up with relationships, and tension between some guy and girl, then, my friends a story I DO NOT HAVE.

I know that now, and have for some time. A story is the “What is it about?”, and you have a story only, only, ONLY, when you can answer that question without getting into relationships, hopes, dreams, past, stage, theme———————->>>and only then!!

Because, otherwise you are simply talking about either one of those, or some of them combined.

So, you want to tell me what your story is about? Remove character, remove the cool world you created, remove the sad past, remove the romance, and tell me then, and only then, what your story is about.

If you can´t do that, then sorry, you don´t have a story. No, no – it just didn´t happen.

And if you are like me, and need to start with the characters first, need to be personal first, and need to start with relationships first – DO NOT worry. It is harder this way (to me!), it is more confusing, but, it can work out. It can happen. It did, to me. I have three stories right now. And with that I mean, that I have that summary, and if a stranger were to come up, and ask me, “Hey! What is your shit about??”, I will be able to answer, just like that.

“It´s about this guy, who discovers the world he lives in is nothing but an illusion, in which machines have long since taken on control, and are using the human body as batteries. Now he wakes up in the real world for the first time, and has to fight those machines with others like him to clear the path for the humans.”

Of course, that is not my story – it is the Matrix.
Notice how there is no NEO in there yet, no hint of relationships, of decieving, of the cool first stages of training, and the oracle—–>>>even thought it were those things that made up most of the movie! Even thought there was decieving and Mr. Smith and the fighting.

I get that. I honestly do, and it all starts and ends with the simple question,”Hey – what is your damn story even about?”.

What I am having trouble with, is creating a plot (or concept!) for my already set characters. A slow process, and more than a little painful. So, you´ve got any tipps, let me hear!

Peace out ;T

Sharon Leah March 3, 2013 at 9:04 am

Your discussion and example of how to use “what if” to help find the story CONCEPT was very helpful. I understand theme and can write a premise for a story, but concept has had me stumped. I’m reading Story Engineering, too, and it’s helped me sort out how concept is different from and confused with theme, premise, etc.

I wrote the concept statement for a story I want to write, and BAMM! I could see, as you describe in your post, how knowing the concept reveals what needs to happen before (setup) and the first plot point.

THANK YOU!

PS–I ordered both Story Engineering and Story Physics from Amazon. Then I had to cancel the order because they were holding Story Engineering to ship in June when the yet to be published Story Physics is available. I reordered and received Story Engineering. I think that shipping policy may be a deterrent from people to preorder the new book.

Sara Davies March 3, 2013 at 12:52 pm

I know this shouldn’t be rocket science (physics – thank you) but unfortunately, I’m a moron. Can’t do basic math either, by the way. Trying to fit this stuff into my head is like folding sheet metal with my hands.

Seems like “concept” is a 3 or 4 sentence summary of the plot – the events of the story – with the added dimension that it identifies the hero, the hero’s objectives, and obstacles the hero will encounter in a way that poses an intriguing question. A “what if” scenario that suggests a high degree of emotional and/or physical risk for the hero, combined with a question the reader wants answered (which probably means it’s a question relevant to what’s going on in the world.)

Clarifying the “concept” feels like a decision-making, dispassionate thinking & planning activity similar to choosing a destination and making airline and hotel reservations – you just decide where to go and arrange to go there. A travel itinerary has nothing to do with the scenery, how it feels to go on a trip, or the reason for the trip (which might be the “theme”). It’s a factual list of connections and steps – leave LAX on Thursday at 9:00 AM, make a connecting flight at O’Hare, land at JFK, take a taxi into Manhattan, buy a $15 cup of coffee.

It sounds like if the external events (plot) are put in motion properly, the theme grows organically from those events. And if that’s true, in that sense, concept and/or plot do come first in the story-creation hierarchy, because they are the delivery system – without them, you have nothing.

Am I getting warmer?

@ spinx: I feel your pain.

Larry March 3, 2013 at 1:22 pm

@Sara — well… not quite there. A concept is a “conceptual idea” attached to the promise of something dramatic. Absolutely something that can be stated with ONE “what if?” question. “What if a human-like alien landed here, was raised by human parents and grew up to be our protector?” That’s Superman.

Nothing you said is “wrong,” in terms of the story “needing” that level of thinking. It’s just that I believe you’re over-thinking, and aiming wide, when it comes to the notion of “concept.” Quite simply, a concept is a COMPELLING idea… period. And here resides the art of it… what’s compelling to some isn’t all that compelling to others. An idea that OPENS THE DOOR to dramatic tension. It’s NOT plot… yet. It’s definitely not theme or character, those are bolt-ons (and if you BEGIN with theme, which is legit, then you MUST bolt on a concept at some point if you want the story to work as well as it could… doesn’t matter where you start).

“Sleepless in Seattle” was a simply love story, right? It transpired on EMAIL. That’s it. THAT is the concept. Nothing more, nothing less. But it’s NOT the story… the story SPRINGS FROM that concept. Without the email angle, there is little original or compelling about that story.

What you describe is actually the “work” of using the concept to extend it, evolve it, toward PREMISE. A single statement of concept ALWAYS requires more development and evolution, often in the form of further “what if?” questions that begin to align with a hierarchy, some residing higher than your opening concept statement, some below it. The goal is to arrive at the HIGHEST PRIORITY of concept, the thing the story is ABOUT, dramatically-speaking. If your first concept idea is, “what if a girl has an affair with the professor whose recommendation determines whether she gets into law school or not?” — that’s a concept, because it’s the SEED of drama, without needing to go further to determine if it’s compelling, or not. You may later decide there’s an even HIGHER level of concept here: “what if that professor is your mother’s lover? What if your mother broke his heart and he’s seeking revenge, seducing the girl with a goal to foil to law school plans?” It’s all just story development. THAT is what you’re describing, and it’s BEYOND the simplicity and elegance of concept itself. Concept is fluid, imprecise, it grows and evolves, sometimes it shifts.

The risk comes from a writer working from a given concept, then ends up either writing about something ELSE (because it “grew” in that direction, and that something else is WITHOUT concept), or writing about nothing at all (episodic storytelling).

It’s hard. It’s why not everybody can do this. It’s why some writers take years and years on a single story… and others nail down the best story in the first draft (because this is clear and natural for them, concept is what draws them to their story). For some it’s not a choice. But the variables involved… those are universal. It’s all a tool chest, all the tools using natural “forces” of human response to work, and sometimes the tools don’t fit into the writer’s head. Doesn’t mean they’re not seriously powerful tools, though. This is as much craft, leveraging “science” (the forces of human behavior, cause-and-effect), as much as it is “art.”

In fiction, “art” becomes the clever, powerful and efficient leveraging of the very things some regard as beneath art. Semantics, that.

This is why I coach the concepts. I’d say 50 to 80 percent of the stories I see are weak or already broken AT the conceptual level. Which means one of two things. Three things, actually, the third trumping the first two. First… a draft written from their weak opening concept won’t work as well as they hope. If they quit there, they’ll likely fail (THIS is why the majority of books DON’T get published, right there… the idea itself has no teeth). Or, they’ll need a rewrite, once they get clear on what WILL work. Could take years. And then… bottom line… it won’t EVER work, no matter what you call it, no matter how you get there, no matter how long it takes or how many truck loads of paper you need to print out drafts… it doesn’t matter what you “get” or “don’t get,” until the forces behind storytelling are aligned and rendered on the page.

Hope this helps. Stop struggling so hard to make it all something other than what it is, which is simple, really. ANYTHING can be labeled a concept. It’s the degree to which the “thing” at the heart of the idea — not the plot emerging from it, not the details — is COMPELLING and FRESH and offers an EDGE, in an of itself.

Jesus NOT dying on the cross after all… that’s a concept. The one Dan Brown used to sell 80 million hardbacks. Of course, he leveraged about two dozen facets springing FROM that concept to get it to that level, but that remains the highest level of concept in that story (and, if you’re about to say “but I hated that story,” which many do… not relevant. 80 million books sold IS relevant, because it validates both the concept and the execution). What matters is where he began the evolution of the story, not how many other, related conceputal ideas attach to it – THAT is just story development. But when that SQUARE ONE NOTION, that idea that is conceptual, packs a punch… THAT will always serve the story and the writer.

Grab an idea, then work it into something conceptual… THEN begin using it to craft a drama from it, in context to the CORE STORY it shines a light toward, one with thematic depth and character facets. L.

Sara Davies March 3, 2013 at 3:48 pm

@Larry:

Yes, that does help. Thank you.

The purpose of being able to articulate the concept is to A) test the idea to confirm it’s strong enough to carry the weight of an entire narrative; B) generate plot; C) serve as a guideline to maintain focus.

Is that it?

Actually, I did like that Dan Brown book ;) (The way I remember it, Jesus died, but had a wife and child first).

I can see how nothing in “Side Effects” is extraneous. (I think the writer doesn’t just pose the question, but actually CONCLUDES, because of where the film ENDS, that people who take prescription drugs do so to avoid taking responsibility for their actions. Was that his intention? You don’t see it that way, so maybe not.)

“The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” is also controversial.

Yet it shares that quality of being economical, limiting content to the absolute essentials.

I admire the way everything in it, every detail, no matter how insignificant it appears to be in passing, ultimately serves a purpose. What appears at the beginning is mirrored in the resolution. Fits together with the elegance of an algebra equation. (Both “Side Effects” and “The Messenger” do that.)

To me, any story that achieves that level of efficiency is beautiful. But the only way to achieve such a result is to plan every last tiny fragment from beginning to end.

Larry March 3, 2013 at 4:02 pm

@Sara – glad that helped. And yes, you’re right on it, as long as the word “compelling” resides right behind, as you’ve put it here, “being strong enough.” They’re synonymous.

I actually don’t think the filmmakers were overtly trying to nail a specific message that conclusively. Because this WASN’T a theme-driven story, the theme was USED to get readers involved, and then to show this outcome for these characters, while taking some bow shots at the drug industry. Like most good theme stories, the thematic conclusion was left for the audience to decide for themselves. Certainly, not every user ends up killing their spouse or themselves.

And then, when you say: “But the only way to achieve such a result is to plan every last tiny fragment from beginning to end…” that’s right in a general sense, but not always and not that rigidly. You CAN reach this level of foreshadowing detail and nuance, of clue-planting and retroactively-visible truth behind deception, through drafting, too… though that’s a really hard and often long road to travel. But it can get you there. Each time a draft doesn’t work as well as you want it to, or as it should, the next revision would come closer (provided the writer understands the potential of the concept and the structure), until it’s all finally there. I do love the planning approach myself, but not everyone gravitates to it. Sometimes it takes a draft or two to uncover the gold… which is why I like to say, it’s all just the “search for story” (planning OR drafting) until the story CLARIFIES and FOCUSES… and then, what that blessed moment finally happens, whether in outline form or draft form, the writer DOES have a story plan in hand. “Pantsers” who say they “can’t plan” are actually using drafting AS their mode of story search and story planning… we ALL end up PLANNING our stories, one way or another. It’s where we settle along that road that counts, and the more we know, the more better that decision will be. L.

Dave H March 3, 2013 at 7:42 pm

I agree that Side Effects is quite ‘tight’ in the way the many moving parts introduced, interact, and play toward the “conclusion.” I put that in quotes as the film did leave me with a question — which might be the seed of a concept for the sequel. In the last scene, when the guard asks Emily how she’s doing… with a bit if a twinkle in her eye (as I recall, at least) she says “Better.” Am I stretching things to wonder ‘What if she’s hatching a follow-on scheme to actually wiggle free and do more damage?

Frank Morin March 4, 2013 at 12:20 pm

Larry,

Excellent post! Thanks. This is probably the clearest demonstration I’ve seen of concept and how it relates to theme. Extremely valuable.

Frank

Gina March 5, 2013 at 1:57 am

Geez, Larry, you are just phee-nom-enal.

Joel D Canfield March 5, 2013 at 7:19 am

The word “compelling” is most helpful (in the conversation with Sara above.)

Reading “Story Engineering” right now, and one bit that stuck is that a properly formed concept, posed as a “what if . . . ?” question, will compel the story as its answer.

Yeah; if it was easy, everyone would be doing it.

FD March 5, 2013 at 3:20 pm

Having seen Side Effects while revising the end of my own mystery-thriller script, I enjoyed your lengthy deconstruction. I agree that the question raised by the dramatic concept is the key to keeping the script on track and keeping the audience attentive. In Side Effects, I immediately locked on to two questions: how and why did Emily murder Martin? And while Martin’s murder worked as a great dramatic concept, the resolution of these questions was far less satisfactory. Why did Emily wait four years? Why did she have to kill Martin to manipulate the stock price? Why not stage another suicide attempt, or an attempted murder, not an actual murder? Why didn’t she simply find another rich husband/girlfriend who could provide the lifestyle she had become accustomed to? How did Banks know Emily would see him meet Seibert outside the prison? When you think about it, the resolution of the story raises more questions than it answers.

Despite these logical flaws, Side Effects is a very entertaining movie. But, I don’t believe the writer meticulously planned it out. The trail of blood at the start was heavy-handed. The writer failed to show any motive for the crime other than Emily’s interest in yacht sailing. And the denoument in which Jude Law recovers his wife, son, and profession, seemed a producer-forced upbeat that undermined the entire film.

Side Effects has the style of a great thriller, but the writer gave us too many easy answers. For better insight into the importance of the dramatic concept , I recommend the Italian thriller, The Double Hour (2009).

Robert Jones March 7, 2013 at 11:29 am

Netflix has “The Double Hour” for streaming. I’ll check it out over the weekend. Thanks for the recommendation, FD.

Dave H March 8, 2013 at 10:59 am

I don’t want to branch a whole thread on “The Double Hour” (recommended a few posts back) but I’d find it interesting to hear what Larry or other posters would say about the ‘Engineering’ aspects. I haven’t worked out answers, but the film raised some questions for me re; how it might have been better if they’d paid more attention to Story Engineering.
I’ll stop at that and see whether or not there’s any interest in a thread on that topic.

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